The Jerusalem Post published an interview with Prof. Raphael Mechoulam the Israeli scientist who dismantled cannabis in the 60’s.Prof. Mechoulam will be the key speaker at the CANN10 International Conference for Medical Cannabis taking place in September in Tel Aviv.
In the early 60’s Prof. Mechoulam returned from the States after he received his PHD. He joined the Weizmann Institute, and was looking for an interesting research subject. He realized science knew how to isolate morphine from opium and cocaine from coca since the 19th century, but had not yet discovered the active ingredient in cannabis. He says it is impossible to engage in scientific research exploring pharmacological aspects in clinical trials if the active ingredient is not identified.
The discovery of THC and the endocannabinoid system
The vacuum in knowledge led to Prof. Mechoulam and his team isolating numerous ingredients in cannabis. Only THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) demonstrated psychoactive properties. A great deal of pharmacological work was done but the mechanism of action was still a mystery.
The understanding came 20 years later as an American group of scientists led by Prof. Allyn Howlett discovered the receptor which binds with THC. From there, many answers became apparent. In the 90’s the endocannabinoid system in the human brain was discovered. Scientists realized that THC mimicked the action of naturally occurring molecules within the human body causing feelings, emotions and thoughts.
This novel system was discovered because of the identification of THC. Many researchers looked into the newfound neurobiological system. This system is linked to so many biological activities that the NIH (National Institute of Health) declared it hard to find any human activity that this system is not involved with.
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Receptors and endocannabinoids identified
This led to many discoveries. First, two receptors were found: CB1, which binds to THC, and CB2, an important defense receptor. An endocannabinoid, named by Mechoulam and his group as “Anandamide” (a combination of “Ananda” “divine joy” in Sanskrit and Amide acid) was identified.
New information associated with endocannabinoid receptors kept coming. For instance, the pharmacologist Prof. Esty Shohamy discovered the effect of endocannabinoid receptors aiding in the expansion of blood vessels. This study led to the ability to fight contraction and dilate blood vessels in cases of brain damage.
The late Prof. Itai Bab discovered another endocannabinoid molecule from the very same group that acts against bone tissue thinning and fights osteoporosis. The endocannabinoid system is essentially a defensive system.
What is needed in the research of this miraculous plant?
Pre-clinical research has made major breakthroughs, but further understanding of the endocannabinoid system is needed. To expand the use of cannabis as a medicine, broad clinical research must be done. Due to insufficient research, doctors are suspicious, and rightly so, of medical cannabis use because there is not enough information to support the hypotheses. Says Prof. Mechoulam.
Mechoulam and his team did clinical research on cannabidiol (a major non psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) and found that it is an ideal antiepileptic material 35 years ago, but the study was not large enough to be considered conclusive. Parents of US children who suffer from epilepsy have been flocking to Colorado to obtain cannabis with a high concentration of cannabidiol in recent years. Due to pressure from the public, the US has approved large-scale clinical research and so far, it seems that Prof. Mechoulam and his team was right.
He asks why did it have to take 35 years? How many children suffered? It is absurd, he says as cannabidiol, one of many Cannabis cannabinoids, is not toxic and has no side effects.
US research has been minimal
Israel and some European countries have produced more clinical studies on medical cannabis than the entire USA. For instance in Beilinson Hospital large quantities of cannabidiol was given to patients who had their bone marrow replaced. Rejection of the new bone marrow decreased by 50%. Cannabidiol is an excellent treatment in autoimmune diseases, diseases where the body attacks itself. Prof. Mechoulam proposes that type 1 diabetes, for instance, should be looked at.
In Hadassah Ein Kerem, THC was given to PTSD patients to help them sleep. In Europe high concentrations (800 mg per day) of cannabidiol improved the condition of schizophrenic patients.
Clinical research requires lots of permits, clear conditions and lots of money. It is not easy, but possible. Mechoulam hopes that in the near future it will at least be possible to use pure cannabidiol to treat illnesses. Only solid research that physicians can rely on will expand cannabis as a conventional medicine.
Cannabis cannabinoids “the wonder drug”
Prof. Mechoulam had to wait 35 years to see he was right about the treatment of epilepsy with cannabidiol, one of the Cannabis cannabinoids. Perhaps he was way ahead of his time but let’s hope the medical world is ready to catch up soon and discover there are many more ailments that can be treated by this ‘wonder drug’.